Saturday, 5 March 2016

The Stoic Puritanism of Keith Vaughan

He was no Lucian Freud even if his art largely featured nudes. Freud's work was focused on a generalised nudity where both the male and female forms were studied. Keith Vaughan, unknown to many, painted only male nudes. Both were figurative artists who found themselves out of fashion at a time when abstract art was all the rage. It is this tenuous link that unites the two men. Freud is rumoured to have fathered forty children. This is pure guesswork, however, fourteen children  have been identified as his. Whereas Freud spread his seed among his female wives and lovers, Vaughan was homosexual at a time when being gay was about as popular as his art.

When I say 'unknown to many' I should qualify that by saying, globally unknown and then only among the public. The art world knew and appreciated his work if only by small degree. He was, however, given  the CBE in 1965 for his contribution to art which in some way went to raising his profile.

There is an otherworldly, alien beauty about his portraits. He captures the erotic with subtle gestures and with what I think is an almost cubist eye. His colours are muted giving the impression of stepping out of or being embraced by shadow almost as though he is suggesting the old world view of something distasteful, colourless, unnatural. It is this odd burlesque that caricatures the twisted morality of pre-sixties Britain. 

He managed to defy the mocking eye of fashion and in doing so created a distinctive style that was every bit as edgy as Bacon if not so shocking. But I am getting ahead of myself. Before any of this, his art painted during the Second World War is a thing worthy of closer inspection. 

'15 November 1939. The days pass with an even measure. Nothing is demanded from me butt the inaction and acceptance of mild discomforts. We continue to play games. Ping-Pong, billiards, and first aid bending intimately over each other and feeling for arteries and pressure points through thick clothing.'

However, it is his art, his post-war work, that appeals to me the most. I have said his art was figurative; so it was, however, it seems to me it is more accurate to suggest what he achieved was to meld the two together so that the figurative and the abstract sit happily together effecting a wonderful cross breed. A powerful combination of two distinctly different art forms.
 An elegant, sensual, almost Olympian body of work that presents the male form in Godlike fashion. 

Lithe, muscular, erotic, challenging and charged with one man's love of his fellow man's physique. It goes without saying that this comes distinctly from a homosexuals perspective; it is homoerotic to the nth degree. That, though, doesn't imply only Gays can appreciate this work. It is before its time, much like the music of captain Beefheart. The contemporary world, religious fundamentalists and bigots to one side, view such art with a different attitude.For me, this is a startling discovery. It shouldn't be though as his sales figures were, even then, consistently good.

'27 November 1958 Recommenced painting today after four days in bed. Worked on the second thirty by twenty-five canvas ('Landscape with Figure 1957, Arts Council) in which I seem to be purposefully trying to make a composition of mutual contradictions. Figures which are neither abstract nor figurative. A little of this sort of thing makes me very tired and I try to reason the thing out. What am I doing and why? But that line of enquiry leads nowhere. Certainly I am following a scent, but it is very buried and extremely irrational.'

What makes him truly remarkable, ironically, is that it is possibly his ability as a writer that marks him out. From 1939 through to his death in 1977, Vaughan kept a journal. Nothing remarkable in that you might say but what is remarkable is the manner in which he wrote.

It is a journal riddled with self-doubt; his nagging frustrations of an unsatisfactory sex life; his fixation, told in a morbid, forensic fashion, with masturbation. He wired his genitals so they received electric shocks. How this gave him pleasure is hard to conceive but did it he did.

He recorded his life in bruising, unforgiving detail omitting not a single, painful moment. All the crushing alienation of being homosexual in an age when such sexuality was more than frowned upon, it was illegal and punishable by imprisonment.

Bizarrely the book brings to mind the song by The Kings Of Leon, "Sex on Fire." The power, the potency yet the veiled feeling of desperation, of something more demanding than just desire that pales when compared to the dangerous loneliness, the seeking of something more that just sex - love. To cherish and to be cherished by someone, anyone. 

"25 March 1967 Easter Sunday: H.H there with M. and R. Came up on Wednesday. From the previous Wed. until the Tuesday night the longest and most perfect Karezza ever. Extraordinary buoyancy and zest throughout the day followed by four to five sessions (electric) each evening."

The journal is filled with a puritanical bile. The man felt disgusted with himself. It was a feeling given him by the weight of others judgements. Even so his stoicism is remarkable. He takes each episode of his life, not always every day but frequently enough, and writes it down to bear witness to his life. It was a life of isolation written in beautiful English. It is melancholic, sometimes downright depressing but remains an honest telling of his daily life. A life fraught with self-doubt. 

His use English is sublime. He wrote as well as he painted. It is much like being a voyeur on someone else's life. Observing not only the good moments, not just the bad, but the very intimate and destructive parts too.

Not sure I like him. Oh, I love his art but him? No, he loved men but not mankind. He thought Christ was a fool the rest of humanity a nasty, selfish, ugly, stupid species. He said he'd sooner love a nest of ants. I recognise his hurt but it is his hurt even if society ostracised him. His constant despondency became fashionable after the sixties when nihilism was all the rage. That was a fashion statement his is the real deal. He really was the true outsider.

A book worthy of anyone who enjoys a challenging read.

John Keith Vaughan was born in Selsey, West Sussex, in 1912. His first job was working at Lintas, the advertising agency. When war was declared in 1939 he declared himself to be a conscientious objector so was conscripted into the Non-Combatant Force. 

He worked as an art teacher, a job he excelled at. His fusion of figurative with abstract elevates him into the league of both Bacon and Freud even if he never recognised his work as having such worth.  I think he is far better than he thought he was even if he didn't see it that way. I think he measures favourably with those greats.

By 1975, Vaughan had been diagnosed with cancer. He was already impotent and unable to paint. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. He wrote up to and including the day of his suicide. His last entry is chilling.

'4th November 1977 The capsules have been taken with some whisky. What is striking is the unreality of the situation. I feel no different. R. returned to H.h yesterday. but suddenly the decision came that it must be done. I cannot drag on for another few years in this state. It is a bright sunny morning. Full of life. Such a morning as many people have died on. I am ready for death though I fear it. Of course the whole thing may not work and I shall wake up. I don't really mind either way. Once the decision seems inevitable the courage needed was less than I thought. I don't quite believe anything has happened though the bottle is empty. At the momement I feel  very much alive. P.W. rang and asked me to dine with him tonight. But I had already made the decision though not started the action. I cannot believe I have committed suicide since nothing has happened. No big bang or cut wrists. 65 was long enough for me. It wasn't a complete failure I did some.....' Here the writing lapses into illegibility then stops.

He committed suicide late in 1977.

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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